Just to show that I’m moving ahead, Book 3 is in progress, and I’m including an excerpt, the very first scene:
Jason’s sitting across the table from me in the dormitory’s kitchen, his eyes fixed on a sheet of paper covered in arcane notes. I say ‘arcane’ here not because Jason and I are at a school for magic. The word arcane actually means something not a lot of people know. Not a secret so much as … hard to learn. And to me, this is. It’s a complete mystery.
That’s not a spell written on that paper. Nope, our Chemistry instructor has us making pie.
Instructor Emden has, in light of our lackluster performance on our Chemistry final in the spring, given us the weirdest chemistry make-up work ever. Jason and I must learn to bake.
Jason Brown and I have worked together a lot over the last two years. I tutored him in math first year, but it wasn’t until the second year here at Umbrum Hall that we became friends. I’m dating his roommate—the ever-adorable Finn Mitchell—and Jason’s not-dating mine, Isla Rivera, super-student. Neither of those two is doing chemistry makeup work because they both aced the final. Lucky them.
I’m letting Jason lead on this chore because he actually has more cooking experience than I do. He’s got four younger sisters and brothers, so he was always helping his mom around the house. Jason knows how to whip up a dinner for little kids, clean the living room, or even mop floors. He’s made birthday cakes before, and so have I, but that’s by following instructions on the back of a cake mix box and opening up a tub of frosting.
We’re supposed to do this from scratch.
At least Jason and I aren’t like Bianca, Emma, and Anh. Their group assignment was to grow beans. Twenty different kinds of beans, all in the same plot. I’d rather eat pie any day.
Jason has set out a bunch of canisters, a big lump of butter wrapped in wax paper, and a small, stoppered glass vial full of clear liquid. His brown hair is flopping over his eyes at the moment, and his mouth is twisted to one side. He’s a good-looking guy, but he’ll always just be a study-buddy to me. He hands the paper over to me and says, “Okay, first we make sure we’ve got the right tools, then we weigh everything out.”
I glance down at the notes, and yep, Emden’s recipe is written with weights instead of normal-human measurements like cups and tablespoons. I hold in a sigh, but then notice one of the ingredients. “Does this say vodka?”
Jason holds up the small vial. “Only enough for one crust, so don’t get any ideas.”
It’s time for another dry look. Jason’s pretty much immune to my occasional sarcasm by now, though. “Okay. So the butter is chilled, ingredients are out. What’s a pastry cutter?”
He lifts a bizarre, semi-circular tool I now recall I’ve seen in my mom’s kitchen but have never observed in action. Huh. So that’s what that was.
“Are you allowed to ask for advice?” a voice asks from the doorway, a faint Spanish accent making the words come clipped and fast.
Jason and I are both from Central Oklahoma, so we sound normal to each other. Tash Lopez claims that we drawl, which I absolutely do not do. And if I do, I’m getting rid of it. Ugh … drawl.
Tash is standing in the kitchen doorway, tall and lean like most people who are part elf. Her black cowboy boots add an extra couple of inches of height, so she’s inches taller than me and almost exactly the same as Jason. Her gray hair is currently pulled into a number of braids that are artfully twisted back, so she’s probably been hanging out with Bianca or Beyza this morning. Although it’s actually summer, this school is never hot, so she’s wearing one of her cropped suede jackets today—today it’s the demin-blue one with the foot-long fringe coming off the sleeves.
I secretly lust over those fringed jackets of hers, although I honestly can’t imagine myself wearing one. I don’t do western wear.
“You can’t help us,” Jason tells her. “But thanks, though.”
“I wasn’t offering to help,” Tash says. “I’m not getting flour on this outfit. I’m offering advice.”
Jason and I look at each other. He shrugs. “She didn’t say no advice. Just no help.”
“Then put the butter back into the fridge until you’re ready to use it,” Tash says, one long finger indicating the appliance in question. “If your butter gets too warm while you’re working it, it will start releasing its water into the flour and that will make your dough tough. You want it to hold onto its water until it’s in the oven so you get flakes.”
Jason’s brows crinkle together. “Why?”
Tash lets out a dramatic sigh. “Newbies. Because if the water releases during baking, it turns into steam. That what lifts the crust, what makes it flaky, instead of a gummy mess.”
“So this is about water?” he asks. “Damn. I should have figured that out. I wonder…”
Jason’s a water elemental, and that alone should tell you why he now wants to mess around with the recipe. Or the baking. But this is an assignment, and I don’t want to risk screwing it up. “No,” I tell him. “We follow the instructions this time. We can do an experiment later, if you want to try some other way.”
Jason’s mouth tugs to one side as he considers that. I think I’ve somehow committed myself to baking multiple pies with him now, but given that we’re stuck here all summer, it’ll be something to do.
“Okay, so this first one,” he agrees, “we’ll just do it Emden’s way.” He takes the butter and sticks it back in the fridge, then turns back to Tash. “Any other advice?”
Her shoulders lift. “You could put the knife, the cutting board, and the pastry cutter in the freezer while you’re getting ready. My abuela always does that. Also, the bowl you’re about to use to mix everything.”
Jason takes her up on that suggestion.
Since she lived with her grandparents a lot growing up, they’re more like her parents, I think. When she talks about her grandparents, her accent gets heavier. They live in a suburb of El Paso really close to the border, so there are a lot of Spanish-speakers there. “Did she teach you to bake stuff?”
Tash’s head tilts to one side. She crosses her arms over her chest, revealing the motherlode of pricey silver jewelry she’s wearing today, mostly bangles and rings. Me, I’m pretty basic. I have one necklace, the blue-stone one I’m wearing now under my T-shirt. My ears aren’t even pierced. “Did your mom not?” Tash asks.
I cringe a little. I don’t want to criticize my mom, who’s mostly a great mother. But cooking is not one of her strong points. “Um. I never really wanted to learn.”
Tash shrugs. She lives next door to me, and I’ve been helping her catch up in Calculus, so we’ve had plenty of time to exchange mom stories. Believe me, hers are pretty sad. Her mom is a nightmare. Probably why Tash is the most cynical sixteen-year-old I’ve ever met. Seriously, she makes me look friendly and trusting.
“Well,” Tash adds, “the point is you have to keep the butter as cold as possible while putting stuff together. You can even freeze the butter and grate it to make it go faster, but it’s too late for that today, isn’t it? When is this pie due?”
That’s a question I really never thought I’d hear someone ask at Umbrum Hall. When is your pie due?
“We’re supposed to deliver it to the instructors’ dining hall by five,” Jason says.
Tash shakes her head. “What kind of filling?”
“Buttermilk,” Jason says, but it sounds more like a question.
“Yeah,” Tash says, “you guys had better hustle if that’s going to cool completely before five.” She strides over to the refrigerator and retrieves a reusable bottle of water with her name written in sharpie on the side. “Gotta head back to work on Language class,” she says, and is gone without anything more helpful hints.
One of the many weird things about this year is our being stuck here in Umbrum over the summer. We had a choice; either stay at the school or go home. But the go home option is a semi-permanent one because there’s a pandemic on out there. For now, Umbrum is in lockdown; if you leave, you can’t come back. No one knows how long that will last. We may be here for the rest of the year. Or… we may get to go home in a couple of months.
Umbrum is a pocket world of sorts, though, so bringing in a virus could overwhelm the school’s tiny infirmary. We can handle a cold outbreak or a flu, but not anything more virulent. Unfortunately, that’s a word we’ve heard too often this year.
So the professors and instructors are doing their best to challenge us. And thus, pie.
More pie for me.